Image the scene. I’m standing on the high of the Grand Staircase of the International, Commonwealth and Growth Workplace. It’s maybe essentially the most architecturally imposing a part of the constructing, a riot of Victorian extra.
There are marble pillars, gilded panels and coffered ceilings. The partitions are coated in poor high quality murals telling the story of imperial success.
The pictures of crude propaganda have been designed to impress visiting potentates. And within the nook of 1 portray sits an astonishing picture – a small, bare black boy holding a bowl of fruit as much as his supposed colonial betters.
The boy is there to signify Africa or fairly – within the phrases of the now long-forgotten artist, Sigismund Goetze – “our obligations and potentialities at nighttime continent”.
Subsequent to me is International Secretary James Cleverly, who’s telling me how relaxed he’s in regards to the picture, simply down the hall from his workplace.
Sure, that Mr Cleverly – Britain’s first half-African international secretary, who, just a few hours earlier hosted the presidents of Sierra Leone, the place his mom got here from, and South Africa.
He advised me that even one among his predecessors, Lord Curzon, thought the portray “outdated and jingoistic” when it was put in in 1921. And it doesn’t, he stated, mirror a contemporary Britain the place he, the prime minister and residential secretary are of African or Indian heritage.
“I walked previous (the portray) with a head of state of an African nation three hours in the past,” he stated.
“Neither of us checked out it as a result of we have been too busy speaking in regards to the necessary stuff that we have now acquired to speak about.
“You might be hidebound by stuff like this or recognise it’s what it’s: this was a mirrored image of what occurred previously. However what I do is deal with the longer term.
“If anybody had a proper to really feel possibly insulted or upset, I believe it may be me, however it would not fear me as a result of we have now acquired different fish to fry.”
And people fish contain Britain partaking extra carefully with medium-sized powers in Africa and elsewhere.
I’ve come to the International Workplace to listen to the germ of an concept that Mr Cleverly hopes will form future British international coverage.
The thought is that Britain has for too lengthy centered on nurturing its conventional allies and conserving a cautious eye on its conventional opponents, whereas on the similar time many international locations in-between have been uncared for.
These are the African international locations which could have did not again the West’s defence of Ukraine in essential United Nations votes. International locations which consider developed nations did not assist them sufficiently over Covid and local weather change. Nations which maybe look extra to China and Russia for his or her funding and safety.
“In addition to partaking with the international locations which might be already very influential on the world stage, we have to have a look at the partnerships of the longer term,” Mr Cleverly advised me.
He added the UK had to consider the African international locations whose populations, economies and world affect are all rising.
Mr Cleverly is not going to title these international locations and even give a generic description. Officers speak privately of “middle-ground international locations” or “center powers”, however settle for that no phrase is kind of proper.
The thought, although, is about looking for a brand new type of diplomatic and financial engagement based mostly on mutual profit, even when the element – for now – has but to be absolutely thought by.
He stated: “What it means is having a level of thoughtfulness and class to our engagement, the place we’re partaking on problems with the longer term. A few of these are issues that we talked about already – local weather change, vitality transition, that sort of stuff, but in addition issues like well being collaboration.
“For instance, one of many issues we’re discussing with the delegation from South Africa is pandemic preparedness. And that is the sort of factor that’s going to be more and more necessary with international locations in Africa.”
Mr Cleverly doesn’t pitch it as crudely as an try and push again in opposition to Russia and China, each of which have a major presence in Africa, whether or not within the type of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group or China’s huge funding in infrastructure. However the international secretary accepts there may be an ideological battle.
“We recognise now there’s a world competitors of concepts,” he stated. “So we actually have gotten to have a willingness to promote our concepts and why the values that underpin our democracy are the values of our companions as properly.”
Mr Cleverly stated the UK should not be a rustic solely seeking to “harvest” concepts, expertise and assets from African international locations.
“We additionally need to be a invaluable accomplice…. that’s seeking to make investments again into our accomplice international locations. It is acquired to be an actual partnership. I believe that’s a suggestion that we will put ahead that another international locations aren’t placing ahead.”
However, I ask, won’t some African international locations query the reliability of the UK and different Western liberal democracies? And won’t some say the UK has not helped Africa a lot on Covid or local weather change, and is as a substitute despatching asylum seekers to Rwanda whereas reducing its international assist?
“We’re nonetheless one of many largest assist donors on this planet,” Mr Cleverly stated. “Cash is necessary. We completely recognise that and we stay up for the purpose the place the UK financial system has acquired again to the place the place we return as much as 0.7% of GNI (gross nationwide earnings) when it comes to our abroad growth help expenditure.
“However it’s about recognising… there are actually necessary companions all over the world who aren’t as rich, whose economies aren’t in the identical place as ours. However however, they completely have one thing to supply to each the UK and to the globe.
“And so we have to have humility, we have to recognise that the one approach that we’ll be mutually profitable is a mutually helpful partnership.”
It’s a pitch that Mr Cleverly hopes will form the UK’s relations with Africa for many years to return.